Catherine Helen Spence

Catherine Helen Spence was Australia's first woman journalist. She used this skill in promoting social and political reform in South Australia. Spence was also a significant influence in promoting the concept of Federation and her role was recognised with her image being placed on the Australian 2001 Federation five-dollar note.
Catherine Helen Spence, the daughter of David and Helen Spence nee Brodie was born at Melrose Scotland on 31 October 1825. On being bankrupted, her lawyer father resolved to migrate to South Australia and the family arrived on the Palmyra, landing at Holdfast Bay on Catherine's fourteenth birthday. By late 1840 her father was Town Clerk of the Municipal Corporation of Adelaide and the family were living in Halifax Street.

In 1843 Spence started working as a governess and by the end of the decade was operating her own school with her mother and sister, Mary. The Gold Rush era and a lack of men in the colony may have been a contributing factor in Mary’s employment as a journalist, but it enabled her to fulfil a long ambition to be a writer. Catherine became a published author in 1854 with Clara Morison - A Tale Of South Australia During The Gold Fever, the first novel written about Australia by a woman.

The Thomas Hare System of voting being promoted by John Stuart Mill, the work of Mill’s wife, Harriet Taylor, promoting votes for women, and the work promoting women’s rights by Mary Wollstonecraft, instilled a life-long commitment in electoral reform by Catherine. This work included lecture tours beyond South Australia. With the approach of Federation in 1901, she, by now an old woman, worked hard to promote the concept of federalism and proportional voting schemes.

Catherine was involved in numerous activities and causes during her lifetime, although she is primarily remembered as an author and electoral reformer. Her Boarding Out Society campaigned for foster homes for children in preference to institutions. In 1897 she was the first woman appointed to the Colony’s Destitute Board. She was a recognised Unitarian preacher. Catherine supported the establishment in 1879 of the first government secondary school, the Advanced School for Girls. She also worked to encourage women's access to teacher training colleges and Universities. She published seven novels, Clara Morison (1854), Tender and True (1856), Mr Hogarth's Will (1864), The Author's Daughter (1868), Handfasted (1880), Gathered In (1881) and A Week in the Future (1889).

Catherine Helen Spence died at Norwood on 3 April 1910, leaving an unfinished autobiography that was finished by Jeanne Foster Young and appeared in serial form in the Register.

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